Howto Setup a Centralized Logging Server on Debian and Ubuntu Linux with Systemd-Journal-Remote

This blog post describes how to centralize logs on servers running systemd based Linux distributions using systemd-journal-remote

This blogpost describes how to install and configure systemd-journal-remote to stream logs of up to hundrets of client servers to a central log aggregation machine. It was designed to be easy to follow for Linux administrators with little Linux experience. All commands and configuration files required to setup this service are explained in detail and can be copy-pasted. It was written for and tested with Debian 13 and Ubuntu 24.04, but should work with any other Linux Distribution that is using systemd.

Table of contents

What is an Open Source Centralized Logfile Server for Linux?

A centralized logfile server is a system designed to aggregate, store, and analyze log data from multiple sources in a single location for easier monitoring and management.

With recent Linux distributions switching to systemd as an init system and system manager, log messages are now stored in an efficient systemd journal file format.

By default these journal logs are stored directly on every server in a location like "/var/log/journal/8GYiL51Rgi2n5IyNFGqoGiBwaqQ4WRV0/system.journal", where "8GYiL51Rgi2n5IyNFGqoGiBwaqQ4WRV0" is the machine identifyer set in "/etc/machine-id".

This works well for a single system, however when you're working with a larger number of servers or cloud instances, you will need a better solution to centrally manage all of those logfiles.

Centrally managing logfiles of many servers also has the advantage that logs, once send to the central server, can not be modified anymore by an attacker - an attacker could modify the logs that are saved on the client, but you could compare them to the server and the modification would show up. This increases the security of your infrastructure overall.

Fun fact: we have had such an incident once with a client where a third party made a change on their servers and messed it up, and then tried to cover their tracks by deleting log lines. Our consultants were able to determine this by comparing the logs on the (client) server with those that were send to the central log server.

A centralized log management solution helps with these issues. It is consolidating all client servers individual journals into a single journal on the central log server, which can be searched using identifyers such as the clients hostname or the hostname plus the name of a service or services.

What are the Advantages of a Centralized Log Management Solution?

Here are some good reasons for setting up a centralized logging system:

  • You can assign more disk space to the central log server in order to store logs longer than on the clients.
  • Attackers will often try to delete logfiles - by streaming the log lines out to the central server, they can not be deleted anymore by the attacker.
  • Analyzing logs becomes a breeze when you can cross-reference data from multiple systems in one place.
  • For system administrators, it streamlines access to logs across all systems, some of which they might not have direct access to due to security policies.

To create a log server that's Open Source, we will leverage components of systemd, namely systemd-journal-remote, to stream all logs from various Debian and Ubuntu Linux hosts to a central log collector server.

Systemd-Journal-Remote vs Graylog vs FluentD vs Splunk vs LogDNS vs DataDog

Systemd-Journal-Remote is following the unix philosophy do one thing and do it well - it only streams the logfiles of Linux servers to a central log server, nothing else. In addition to that, systemd provides the journalctl cli command which can be used to query and search systemd journal files, which store all the logs in an efficient format.

On the central log server you can additionally install graylog or another log analysis tool to examine the logs of the client hosts. Graylog brings log aggregation tools as well, but they are neither as lightweight nor as efficient in transmitting and storing logfiles as the Linux default systemd-journal-remote is. Hence we recommend to use systemd-journal-remote to stream the logs to the central server and then use graylog to analyze them with a graphical user interface.

While it is possible to use the command line interface "journalctl" to inspect the logfiles of all client hosts in detail and search through them, systemd-journal is neither build nor meant to replace a full scale log analysis tool like graylog or similar.

We think that using systemd-journal-remote to collect and centralize logfiles on Linux is a very good approach as it uses the systemd technology that already comes with the Linux distrubution anyways. It is very little additional code to run on the system, it is very stable (we have been using this solution for two years since before the time of this writing) especially during outages of the network or the central log server and it is the default solution for centralizing logfiles in systemd based Linux distributions.

At the end TODO of this blogpost we will provide you with the most common examples of using "journalctl" to search the logfiles of the log-client-servers, however we do recommend to install a graphical log-analysis solution on the central logserver, like graylog or similar. This will make searching through and alerting on logs much more easy than the somewhat hard to memorize "journalctl" commands.

Centralized Log Management Server Installation

To effectively set up a centralized log management server using systemd-journal-remote, we'll translate the previously mentioned Ansible tasks into bash commands. This approach will enable you to manually set up your server, offering a hands-on understanding of each step.

Installing systemd-journal-remote using apt

Lets begin by installing the systemd-journal-remote apt package:

apt install systemd-journal-remote

Setting Up Log Directory Permissions

After installation set up the correct permissions for the directory where remote logs will be stored:

mkdir -p /var/log/journal/remote/
chown systemd-journal-remote:systemd-journal-remote /var/log/journal/remote/
chmod 0750 /var/log/journal/remote/

Configuring systemd-journal-remote

Next, we configure systemd-journal-remote by creating the necessary configuration files:

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/journal-remote.conf

Set the correct owner, group and permissions for the file:

chown systemd-journal-remote:systemd-journal-remote /etc/systemd/journal-remote.conf
chmod 0640 /etc/systemd/journal-remote.conf

And for the systemd service configuration /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-remote.service:

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-remote.service
Description=Journal Remote Sink Service
Documentation=man:systemd-journal-remote(8) man:journal-remote.conf(5)

ExecStart=/lib/systemd/systemd-journal-remote --listen-http=-3 --output=/var/log/journal/remote/all.journal
RestrictAddressFamilies=AF_UNIX AF_INET AF_INET6

# If there are many split up journal files we need a lot of fds to access them
# all in parallel.


Set the correct owner, group and permissions for the file:

chown root:root /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-remote.service
chmod 0644 /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-remote.service

And enable the systemd service:

systemctl daemon-reload
systemctl enable systemd-journal-remote.service
systemctl start systemd-journal-remote.service
systemctl status systemd-journal-remote.service
● systemd-journal-remote.service - Journal Remote Sink Service
     Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-remote.service; indirect; preset: disabled)
     Active: active (running) since Sun 2024-03-24 17:50:31 UTC; 25s ago
TriggeredBy: ● systemd-journal-remote.socket
       Docs: man:systemd-journal-remote(8)
   Main PID: 1638 (systemd-journal)
     Status: "Processing requests..."
      Tasks: 1 (limit: 4531)
     Memory: 5.6M
        CPU: 63ms
     CGroup: /system.slice/systemd-journal-remote.service
             └─1638 /lib/systemd/systemd-journal-remote --listen-http=-3 --output=/var/log/journal/remote/all.journal

Mar 24 17:50:31 central-log-server systemd[1]: Started systemd-journal-remote.service - Journal Remote Sink Service.
Mar 24 17:50:31 central-log-server systemd-journal-remote[1638]: microhttpd: MHD_OPTION_EXTERNAL_LOGGER is not the first option specified for the daemon. Some messages may be printed by the standard MHD logger.

Creating a Systemd-Timer to Prune Old Logs

To maintain efficient storage management and prevent your log directory from becoming overly crowded, lets set up a systemd timer to periodically delete logs that are older than 90 days.

First, create a systemd service file that specifies the command to be executed. This service will not start automatically but will be triggered by a systemd timer. This service file defines a simple service that, when started, will execute the command to find and delete logs older than 90 days in /var/log/journal/remote.

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.service
Description=Delete old systemd logs

ExecStart=/usr/bin/find /var/log/journal/remote -mtime +90 -delete

To define the correct user, group and permissions for the file:

chown root:root /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.service
chmod 0644 /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.service

Next, create a systemd timer that is set to trigger the delete-old-logs.service daily. The Persistent=true option ensures that if the timer was missed (e.g., the central log server was turned off), it will be triggered upon the next boot.

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.timer
Description=Timer for deleting old systemd logs



To define the correct user, group and permissions for the file:

chown root:root /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.timer
chmod 0644 /etc/systemd/system/delete-old-logs.timer

To enable and start the timer, run the following commands. These commands make sure the timer is active and will start based on the defined schedule, automatically triggering the service to delete old logs daily.

systemctl enable delete-old-logs.timer
systemctl start delete-old-logs.timer

You can check the status of your timer by executing:

systemctl list-timers delete-old-logs.timer
NEXT                        LEFT    LAST PASSED UNIT                  ACTIVATES              
Mon 2024-03-25 00:00:00 UTC 6h left -    -      delete-old-logs.timer delete-old-logs.service

1 timers listed.
Pass --all to see loaded but inactive timers, too.

Centralized Log Management Clients Installation

The next step is to configure all client servers to send their journals to the central log server.

We will configure the clients in such a way that they will both stream their logs to the central server as well as save them locally, like we are already used to from single server setups.

Keep in mind that when the network to the central log server is interrupted, or the central log server is down, or the disk on the central log server is full, the clients will interrupt streaming their logs and stream everything at onceby the time the central log server becomes available again. This way systemd-journal-remote ensures that logs do not get lost during temporary interruptions.

Installing systemd-journal-remote using apt

First, we ensure the necessary tools are installed on the client system. The systemd-journal-remote package contains the systemd-journal-upload service, which is responsible for sending logs to the centralized server.

apt install systemd-journal-remote

Configuring systemd-journal-upload

Now, set up the configuration for the systemd-journal-upload service. This involves specifying the URL of your centralized logging server. You'll replace the placeholders with your server's IP address and port number.

Create /etc/systemd/journal-upload.conf with the following content, substituting systemd_journal_remote_server_ip with the actual IP of your central log server.

Please note that this setup does not configure TLS encryption using SSL certificates (note the http:// in the next config file), which is optionally available for systemd-journal-remote. We left this out because we believe that all servers in any given infrastructure should always be part of a private encrypted VPN mesh network, like for example a wireguard mesh network, through which all such traffic is routed - alongside backup and monitoring traffic as well as any other internally used traffic.
You however can configure systemd-journald-remote to use httpS:// if you plan to send the log data over networks that are not end-to-end encrypted. Please refer to the systemd-journal-remote.conf manual page or, if you want to be 100% sure to have it configured professionally and securely, get in contact with our Linux Consultants to have them setup the required configurations for you.

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/journal-upload.conf

Set the correct user, group and permissions for the file:

chown root:root /etc/systemd/journal-upload.conf
chmod 0644 /etc/systemd/journal-upload.conf

Configuring systemd-journal-upload Service

Lastly, define the systemd-journal-upload.service file. This includes various security and operational settings to optimize log uploading.

Create /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service with the following content:

cat << EOF > /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service
Description=Journal Remote Upload Service

ExecStartPre=/bin/sleep 10
ExecStart=/lib/systemd/systemd-journal-upload --save-state
RestrictAddressFamilies=AF_UNIX AF_INET AF_INET6


Set the correct user, group and permissions for the file:

chown root:root /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service
chmod 0644 /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service

After configuring, enable and start the systemd-journal-upload service:

systemctl daemon-reload
systemctl enable systemd-journal-upload
Created symlink /etc/systemd/system/ → /etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service.

systemctl start systemd-journal-upload
systemctl status systemd-journal-upload
● systemd-journal-upload.service - Journal Remote Upload Service
     Loaded: loaded (/etc/systemd/system/systemd-journal-upload.service; enabled; preset: disabled)
     Active: active (running) since Sun 2024-03-24 18:19:46 UTC; 45s ago
       Docs: man:systemd-journal-upload(8)
    Process: 1700 ExecStartPre=/bin/sleep 10 (code=exited, status=0/SUCCESS)
   Main PID: 1701 (systemd-journal)
     Status: "Processing input..."
      Tasks: 1 (limit: 4531)
     Memory: 2.8M
        CPU: 130ms
     CGroup: /system.slice/systemd-journal-upload.service
             └─1701 /lib/systemd/systemd-journal-upload --save-state

Mar 24 18:19:35 central-log-client systemd[1]: Starting systemd-journal-upload.service - Journal Remote Upload Service...
Mar 24 18:19:46 central-log-client systemd[1]: Started systemd-journal-upload.service - Journal Remote Upload Service.

Checking if it works

To check if everything works, open a terminal on the server and start viewing the logs of the client in follow mode:

journalctl --file /var/log/journal/remote/all.journal -n 0 -f

Now log something on the client:

systemd-cat --identifier="administrator" echo "this is a test string"

It should show up on the server:

journalctl --file /var/log/journal/remote/all.journal -n 0 -f
Mar 24 18:27:00 central-log-client administrator[1886073]: this is a test string

Commonly used Journalctl Commands to view and analyze client logs

For working examples on how to search the logs from the client servers, please refer to the Blunix Manual, which documents exemplary journalctl commands on how to do this.

As mentioned before, we recommend to install a tool like graylog on the central log server in order to do this graphically and to setup alerts on logged errors.

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